Don't be Anxious, be Excited!


In short: Common advice when people get anxious is to 'calm down'. However we know from other lines of evidence that stopping our behaviour is harder than trying to redirect it. The physical sensations we get when anxious are exactly the same as those we get when we are excited. Is it possible to change our emotions and do better by simply thinking of the feelings of anxiety as excitement instead? We review a recent paper that explores the literature on this topic and summarises 4 studies probing this question.

When we face challenges or the unknown we get what we call physiological arousal. Our pulse quickens, our pupils get larger, we get tingly all over, we may sweat a bit and we might start breathing a bit faster. This sensation can be very uncomfortable or even highly distressing. When it happens excessively and when there is no real threat it can be disabling and forms the basis of all anxiety disorders. However, on the flip side, it is also the sensation we get when we ride a roller coaster, we watch a good thriller, we get a piece of really good news or that handsome boy or pretty girl smiles at us across the room. So, why is this sensation so unpleasant at times and so thrilling at others when -- on the face of it -- exactly the same stuff happens to our bodies. Is it to do with the story we tell ourselves about it? Is it perhaps that we label it as excitement at times and anxiety at others? And -- more importantly -- can we turn this in our favour? Can we change the way we feel and behave by changing the way we think?

This was the question Alison Brooks from Harvard Business School had in mind when she set out to write 'Get Excited: Reapprising Pre-Performance Anxiety as Excitement' which she published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology in 2013. She started with the hypothesis that it should be easier to change a high state of arousal 'I'm panicking' into another high state of arousal 'I'm excited' rather than changing it into a low state of arousal 'I'm calm'. The way she tried to answer this is by looking at all the papers that deal with this subject she could get her hands on and then doing some clever experiments.

She explored the literature as to how changing the way we think about something that happened to us can lead to a change in how we feel about it. Imagine someone who breaks up with her partner. She may start by feeling sad and thinking of the event as tragic, but later she might think that it was inevitable, that it was the best the decision for both her and her ex-partner and that in that way they both have an opportunity now to find someone who is a better fit. From sad she can go to feeling proud of herself for making the right decision and excited about the future for both her and her ex-partner. Alison found plenty of evidence in the literature for the effectiveness of this technique.

She notes that a lot of the reappraisal in anxiety has focused on interpreting being anxious as being calm. This can be demonstrably helpful, but she notes that nobody looked very much into trying alternative emotional states, other than calmness.

She then went on to complete 4 studies looking at this question: is it easier and more effective to switch from anxiety to excitement than to switch from anxiety to calmness? She discovered that:

  • People believe trying to calm down is the best way to improve performance in an anxiety provoking situation, such as singing karaoke in front of your mates or going for an interview, but...
  • As is often the case people's intuition is wrong and Alison's experiments show that reinterpreting anxiety as excitement is more effective than calming down and gets better performance.
  • Also it does not seem to be hard to do this: simply saying out loud 'I'm excited' or having people encourage you to 'get excited' seems to do the trick rather nicely.

Alison showed this technique can help in 3 situations: a maths exam, speaking in public and singing.

She did not look into it, but we wonder whether this might also be useful when dealing with an anxiety disorder. We believe that it might work quite well when facing an exposure opportunity. Imagine you fear going in lifts. A way in which you might use this is looking at going in the lift as an exciting new opportunity to get rid of your fear once and for all. What you are feeling is not dread, it is the excitement of anticipating never again being nervous about lifts and defeating your fear once and for all. We are thinking about incorporating this as one of the things we use in Agoraphobia Free. With large enough numbers we can look at the effects of this specific technique separately.